Jerry Orbach is a singing actor, a workhorse performer renowned for sticking with a show over the long haul. His first New York job was in
Threepenny Opera Off- Broadway, which he left after three and a half years to play El Gallo in the original production of
The Fantasticks. He spent three years doing the Bob Fosse musical
Chicago and four years on Broadway with 42nd Street (even longer in the TV commercial for the show). At the time we met, he was on a break.
What's life in a long run like?
It's easy, really. You have a sense of security and routine, and you have your days free. On the artistic side, there's constant experimentation. I find it
fascinating. It's like taking a watch apart and putting it back together, but better because the watch changes every time you open it up. There's always a new audience out there that's never heard the story before. At the end of the run of
Chicago, we were in San Francisco, and it was the last week. One night after the show I said to Gwen Verdon, "Tonight I did it perfect." It took me three years.
What do you do between long runs?
The daily routine is mostly the gym or playing tennis, working on possibilities for new projects. Right now instead of getting into another show, I'd like to concentrate more on films and television. One needs the national exposure. They now have this insidious computer system called the Q-Rating which, when they punch your name in, gives a rating of how many people in this country know who you are. For instance, Lucille Ball would get 100 on it, and I'll get maybe a 20. Angela Lansbury, prior to doing
Murder, She Wrote, would have gotten a 20. Now she'll get 95. A couple of months ago, I was up for this television movie. The director wanted me, the producer wanted me, I was perfect for it. The network punched up my name on the computer and said, "No, get somebody else who has a more visible name in television. "
[At the time of his
death, of course, Orbach had acquired a Q-rating of somewhere
in the 90s -- he made the front page of the New York Times,
and one of the two articles in the paper that day quoted a
producer from Law and Order saying, "Everybody - and I mean everybody around here - loved Jerry. He walked down the street, and people waved to him. Cops waved to him."]
Did you always want to be an actor?
From the time I was fourteen or fifteen. A teacher in high school got me an apprentice job in summer stock, so by the time I was a freshman at
Northwestern, I already had my Equity card. I was a very serious actor. I wanted to be like MarIon Brando or Montgomery Clift. A strange turning point for me was a college production of Brecht's
The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which is also a musical. I was deeply immersed in Brecht at the time. When I came to New York in 1956,
Threepenny Opera had just reopened in the Village, and because of my Brecht background, I went into it as the street singer and understudied Mack the Knife. Suddenly I was doing a musical, so from that I got
The Fantasticks, and from that my first Broadway show,
Carnival. During all that time, I studied with Lee Strasberg and Herbert Berghof and MiraRostova at the Actors Studio, but became pigeonholed as a musical performer. I kept working, though, so I was happy. Friends of mine like Ed Asner and George Segal and Ben Gazzara and Bob Loggia couldn't get arrested, so they were forced to go to California and became movie or television stars.
Was it weird to study at the Actors Studio and do musicals?
One doesn't negate the other. I felt it was interesting to be the type of actor that I was, to do the broad strokes of musicals as a style. It wasn't until
Prince of the City that people in the business finally said, "My God, he can act
What could you bring to musicals from your serious acting background?
I sang in character as well as acted the character. I came along at a time when the leading people in musicals, like John Raitt and Alfred Drake, sang one way, almost operatically, and pretty much played themselves. But people were
getting too sophisticated and starting to laugh at the stiff musical comedy singers who couldn't act. When Barrymore was the great American actor, his broad-stroked, grand style was accepted everywhere. But when Brando came along, he changed the face of American acting. People didn't even think he was an actor the first time he was onstage. It was a revolution in acting, and it
permeated everywhere. Finally, it went into the musical, which was very difficult: when you're standing onstage in front of a couple of thousand people without amplification, you have to yell, and that negates any kind of realism.
How do you deal with the fact that on stage you're speaking at three times the volume of what would be realistic?
There's a difference between naturalism and realism. Naturalism is natural
behavior -- every fluctuation, every moment of natural behavior as this hand hits my knee. But realism is selective
naturalism -- you select the parts of reality that you want the audience to see. The movie director decides where he's going to cut from me to your reaction. On the stage, you and I have to select when they're going to look at your reaction. If, say, this cup of coffee is poisoned, in film we see you put the poison in, then I come and drink it, and the audience is waiting for me because they know. But on the stage, rather than just drinking the coffee and putting it down, I might do something like this
[he raises an imaginary coffee cup to his mouth very slowly].
If I slow down the action for that moment, the whole audience's attention focuses in on that
cup -- "Omigod, what's in the coffee?" It's realistic behavior, but it's unnatural. Speaking three times as loud as life is unnatural. But if you make the character bigger than life, if you make him have more energy than a normal person has walking into a room, then they'll buy it.
Did you think when you started acting that you would do movies?
Yeah. But it didn't work out that way for a while. I tried going to California for a while once, but I had two
boys -- one's seventeen now, the other will be twenty-four --
and when they were in school, I tried not to go away any more than I had to to survive.
Is that why you're attracted to long runs?
It was a matter of financial survival. Why leave something where you're
making money to go and take a chance on something else? I envy the people who have what I call a British career, where they go from film to television to stage without much trouble. Here you have to make a commitment to living either in Los Angeles or New York. The travel is not the problem, it's the attitudes. If you're an actor from New York, they still say, "If you're willing to relocate, we feel we can give you more work. You want to become part of this community? Or are you going to stay in New York and be a foreigner?"
What's the silliest thing about being an actor?
The feeling that one is still not a grown-up at fifty. I'm reasonably intelligent, I work hard, and if I'd been thirty-five years in the shoe business, I'd be the president of the corporation or chairman of the board and making my own decisions. As an actor, I'm still waiting for phone calls.
in the Act: New York Actors Face to Face (NAL Books,
1986), interviews by Don Shewey, photos by Susan Shacter